Born in England, raised in Connecticut, employed in Chicago but now working in London and Rome, conductor Antonio Pappano might not have the easiest time saying where home is - geographically, emotionally or artistically. So he's happiest in places offering a particular state of mind.

"The rehearsal room," says this week's Philadelphia Orchestra guest conductor, "is my favorite place in the world."

At 47, Pappano is one of the more lauded musicians of his generation, having risen from rehearsal pianist at the New York City Opera to music director of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, meeting formidable challenges at nearly every point. In a profession where a conductor's ego can be as vast as his stash of frequent-flier miles, Pappano travels less and concentrates more on his primary commitments (he actually feels guilty that he's now in Philadelphia rather than London) with an almost parental concern.

"I have very little opportunity to teach, and I love to - especially when working with younger singers," he says. "I can help. I can enhance."

Like Wolfgang Sawallisch, Pappano is friendly around microphones and cameras. But he hardly seeks them - or adds fodder to the rumor mill that greets any conductor of his stature making a Philadelphia Orchestra debut in a period when a new music-director search is underway.

His age, wide-reaching repertoire, successful U.S. guest engagements and international profile as an EMI recording artist make him a likely candidate. Though he won't say if there's room in his life for an American orchestral appointment, he admits symphonic gigs are a refreshing change: "In opera, the product is so complex. . . . With symphonic music, it's more immediate and a deeper experience potentially. Potentially!"

His approach is that of a story teller, says Time for Three violinist Nicolas Kendall, who was in the Curtis Symphony Orchestra at the Verbier Festival some years ago when Pappano was guest conductor. The repertoire was Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, with its famously morbid description of a guillotine beheading. "He said, 'I need a chop. You sound like the blade is dull.' Everybody got it," says Kendall.

That element, says Pappano, is essential, even with such abstract composers as Brahms: "We're in a time in musical history where the technical level of accomplishment is very high. To combine that with a strong narrative . . . takes more courage."

Courage is possible with a solid foundation, and Pappano's is time. When he signed on at the Royal Opera, starting in 2002, he surprised management by committing to seven months a year. In a world where conductors often hold three positions at once, for ever-shorter periods (Charles Dutoit's basic Philadelphia Orchestra contract is for eight weeks when he becomes chief conductor), such luxury is unheard of. L'Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, his other gig, gets three months.

Pappano is known for building better orchestras but also for dealing with temperamental stars. Two of the worst - tenor Roberto Alagna and soprano Angela Gheorghiu - made their best recordings with him. The reasons, if not in his genes, are in his upbringing. His father was a voice teacher; young Antonio accompanied voice lessons on piano.

When he was 13, his parents moved to the United States to join family already settled here, and he soon found himself a big pianistic fish in the relatively small pond of Bridgeport, Conn., where he conducted choirs and played in cocktail lounges.

The formation of the Connecticut Grand Opera (his first professional gig) helped him get out of declining Bridgeport intact. After two New York City Opera seasons (where he was assigned to atypical endeavors such as Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and Bernstein's Candide), he was a pianist in opera companies from Frankfurt to Barcelona to Chicago (where he met his American wife, Pamela Bullock) to the Wagner Festival at Bayreuth, working with Daniel Barenboim. As a conductor, he came to serious attention at age 32 in 1992, with his appointment to La Monnaie, the Belgian Royal Opera House.

One absence from the Pappano resume is a conservatory stint. Though many say the best education is on the job, Pappano would have loved long hours of playing chamber music. But his Brussels period - at a "boutique opera company" not on a repertory treadmill - provided the marination one gets in conservatory. What emerged was a conductor whose work is considered, but not intellectualized.

"The danger today is to analyze and overanalyze," he says. "The most important tool is your ear. The ability to listen is harder than you think - as is the ability to make the people you're working with listen. You can work on the music in your room and imagine all kinds of things. But the music must be a very natural thing. You must not get away from that."

What that adds up to in his performances this week of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 isn't presaged by his well-reviewed Tchaikovsky symphonies on EMI. Pappano sees more differences than similarities in the two Russian composers. But his Rachmaninoff piano concerto recordings with Leif Ove Andsnes - with their illusion of a natural salt-sea of orchestral sound - jibe with how he talks about the composer.

"Rachmaninoff's style of rubato [as a pianist] was very Chopinesque. Things turn on a dime. We'd call it old-fashioned," he says. "And the portamento in the string style [a seesawing effect that comes from one note sliding into another] is, to our ears, over the top.

"But I love it. To clean that up too much isn't good."

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.